China is making a lot of progress quickly on its newest aircraft carrier and could be ready to launch it in the not-too-distant future, experts said in an analysis of recent satellite images.
The carrier, a still-unnamed naval vessel known simply as the Type 003, could launch in three to six months, three Center for Strategic and International Studies experts have concluded given the visible developments at Jiangnan Shipyard in Shanghai.
They acknowledged, though, that it is difficult to know what is going on inside the ship and that technical challenges could demand more time.
The Chinese navy, the world’s largest naval force, currently has only two aircraft carriers. The Liaoning was built using the hull of an older Soviet vessel, and the Shandong is a Chinese-built copy of that first ship with some upgrades.
The Chinese carriers closely resemble Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, and are distinguished by their ramp-assisted aircraft launch systems, which can limit a carrier’s combat capability.
The newest aircraft carrier is expected to help China step up its carrier game, putting it among more elite navies.
China began building the Type 003 in 2018. In a Department of Defense report on the Chinese military published the following year, the Pentagon said the ship will be larger than its predecessors, fitted with a catapult system for launching planes, and able to deploy with a more capable air wing. And that air wing may include a next-generation fighter.
CSIS experts said in a previous analysis of China’s carrier construction efforts that “when the Type 003 eventually enters service, it will be a formidable addition to China’s navy and allow it to more effectively project power.”
The new ship – China’s third carrier, second domestically-produced carrier, and likely first modern flattop – was starting to really take shape by late May, and by mid-July, the construction had progressed significantly, with the control tower known as “the island” and aircraft catapults clearly visible in high-resolution satellite images from Maxar Technologies.
In recent weeks, Chinese shipyard workers appear to have made more progress on the aircraft carrier, CSIS experts Matthew Funaiole, Joseph Bermudez, and Brian Hart observed.
These experts noted in particular the closure of two large openings in the flight deck, suggesting workers have completed the initial installation of major internal components, like engines and powerplants, for this aircraft carrier, like a conventionally-powered vessel rather than a nuclear-powered ship. These openings were still visible in mid-September.
The CSIS analysis they published Tuesday also said that the most recent satellite images suggest the installation work on the major external components are nearing completion as well.
In the latest photos, work appears to be underway on two of the three catapults, which may be steam-driven like the US Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers or electromagnetic like the new Ford-class carriers.
Catapults allow a carrier to launch heavier aircraft, such as fighters with full fuel and weapons payloads and early warning aircraft, making the vessel more capable in an operational or combat scenario.
Few navies operate carriers with catapults, so the inclusion of this type of technology into its new carrier would be a big step for China, which has a very new carrier program compared to countries like the US and France.
Before China can launch the new aircraft carrier, it may want to first install the elevators and radar systems, though this can be done after it is in the water, and it will need to move a large container ship at the shipyard out of the way, the CSIS report explained.
After the launch, whenever that occurs, it will likely still be a few years before the ship is operational – as engineers and the crew work to test the ship’s many systems and then build enough proficiency to potentially use them in combat.
Last year’s Pentagon report on China’s military suggested the carrier could enter service by 2023. The latest report, however, changed the timeline for entry into service, saying it is expected to happen by 2024. No explanation was given for the expected delay.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has a battle force of 355 ships and submarines and is, according to the Pentagon, “an increasingly modern and flexible force.”
The Defense Department expects China to continue building aircraft carriers as it further builds up its naval force amid strategic competition with the US.
The US Navy is a smaller but more experienced naval force able to project power globally with 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and it is continuing to grow and evolve as well. The US Navy is in the process of fielding fifth-generation stealth fighters on its aircraft carriers, as well as a new class of aircraft carriers with a suite of new combat technologies.